Critical Analysis of Paradise Lost Book 2

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      Book II of Paradise Lost is easily Milton’s most outstanding writing in poetry. The epic poem contains high drama, crisp narrative, vivid description and striking character portrayal.

      The very subject matter of the epic lends itself to the grand manner. The result is that Milton’s style and presentation touch new heights of sublimity. He leaves his mark throughout the epic with his grand style and remarkable use of blank verse.

      The high water mark of Book I is its heightened narration and description. Book II has high drama, sharp characterization and sustained descriptive and narrative qualities. The canvas is vast and Book II gets off the ground with a major conclave of the fallen angels planning how to salvage their fall.

Realistic Portrayals

      The conclave gives Milton the opportunity to come out with a realistic portrayal of his characters. Satan sets the tone for the debate by asserting his position as the first among the fallen angels. In this debate, Milton brings to bear his scholarship and study of oratory giving the participants a majesty of eloquence both in its sweep and dimension.

      As the leaders of the fallen angels deliver their harangues it becomes clear as is usual on such occasions that the views of the leader are going to prevail. Satan emerges from the conclave as the unquestioned leader. In a few deft and powerful touches Milton has given every leader a distinctive personality and an approach of his own. The debate gives the poet an opportunity to draw finely contoured beings. The participants are acutely differentiated so that their speeches stand neatly on platforms of party and principle. Each suggestion put forward by the leaders reveals the characteristic virtues of its advocate - courage in Moloch, clarity in Belial, self-reliance in Mammon’s plan for economic development and in Beelzebub an echo of Satan.

Courageous Characters

      The most notable thing in the portrayal of the leaders of the fallen angels is that they impress us with their indomitable courage and unflinching determination. Milton describes the might, wisdom and eloquence of the fallen angels with such sublime power that the defiance that they hurl towards the vault of Heaven seems for the moment something more than an empty boast. They actually affect one great conquest in Hell: the victory of unconquerable will over adversity.

      The fallen angels respond nobly to the call of their great leader and rouse themselves with matchless fortitude from their physical and mental prostration. Such an undaunted struggle against the force of adverse circumstances cannot fail to attract the deepest sympathy. The natural tendency of human nature to sympathize with the weaker side often makes the reader of an epic poem feel more affection and admiration for the defeated adversary than the victorious hero.

      The strong point about Book II is its narrative which grips and sustains the reader’s interest till the very end. Though an epic, the call to action creates intense reader interest. The announcement about the creation of a new world and a new type of being called ‘man’ in it has all the interest and curiosity of science fiction. Satan throws the gauntlet before the assembled audience that the new world should be discovered and the creature called man should be lured to join the revolt against God.

Epic Adventure

      Satan’s journey through Chaos has the makings of epic adventure. As he starts on his journey he raises the hopes of the fallen angels about a turn in their fortunes. Milton’s description of the fallen angels while their leader is away on an expedition to the new world is one of the grandest things in the whole epic. When their minds were lifted to some extent by the hopes mixed by Satan, they broke up their military formation and engaged themselves in various pursuits. Some of them spent their time on the plain, some uplifted on the wing sported in the air, some entered into a race - like the Olympian or Parthian games. As armies rush to battle in the clouds so the fallen angels contended on the plain and in the air. Others with more fury began to rend up rocks and hills and swept through the air like a whirlwind.

      Hell seemed to burst with a wild tumult. Others milder in character took themselves to a silent valley and sang angel songs to the accompaniment of a harp. Others sat on a hill and carried on discourses. Some others explored the vast region of Chaos to see if they could discover a softer climate. It has been stated that Milton was only following classical convention in describing the occupations of the fallen angels. It must be accepted however that Milton’s aim in giving this description was not only to follow a classical convention but to give a significant place to this episode in the epic. The episode is full of striking imagery that captures the reader’s mind.

      Then there is Satan’s confrontation with Sin and Death - a description that reveals the characters of all three and is at the same time revolting.

Epic Similes

      The significance of Book II lies in the use of superb epic similes, each a wonderful picture in itself. Moreover, these similes are not merely decorative, they have undertones of meaning. Milton’s description of Chaos and Satan’s journey through it form one of the grandest and most original portions of the epic. The final passage of Book II describes how Satan passes through the gates of Hell and makes his way through Chaos through the newly created universe. Heaven, Earth and the underworld are traditional settings in epic poetry but Chaos, Milton’s fourth setting, has no precedent. Masson says about Milton’s description of Chaos that every part of this description of the deep of Chaos as seen upwards from Hell Gates is minutely studied and considered. Altogether it would be difficult to quote a passage from any poet so rich in purposely accumulated perplexities, learned and political, or in which such a care is taken and so successfully, to compel the mind to a racking intense conception of sheer inconceivability. In his description of Chaos, Milton suggests that it is not so much a place or something occupying space but a state of mind. There is nothing innately evil about this realm. Evil is the perversion of order. Hell founded on the principle, Evil be thou my Good, is a parody of Heaven. Chaos on the contrary is a state of simple disorder.

      Certain passages in Book II have a positive moral appeal and without being moralistic, these passages convey the meaning sought to be conveyed. This is because Milton conveys his message discreetly and indirectly only when there is need to do so and when the reader’s moral strength needs to be strengthened.

      Milton’s style of writing has a sense of grandeur about it, a style that suits epic poetry giving both his thought and expression the highest sublimity.

University Questions

Evaluate Book II of Paradise Lost. Or
It has been stated that Book II of Paradise Lost is regarded by some as Milton’s most outstanding performance as a poet. Do you agree?
What places Book II of Paradise Lost on the pedestal of greatness?

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